The Melodrama of Van Damme – Bloodsport Vs No Where to Run (Film Studies)

by yonirusnak

The Tagline for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movie Nowhere to Run (Harmon, 1993) describes the action adventure as an “exciting mix of high calibre action and heart-stopping suspense”(DVD blurb). Such  a description is not readily associated with melodramas however throughout this essay I will argue that an action film can indeed be rooted in the context of a melodramatic mode. Through the close analysis of Nowhere to Run in contrast to Bloodsport (Arnold, 1988 ) this essay will explore how a melodrama can often lie buried under the surface of action films, which in the words of Linda Williams (1998, p.58) “generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognise that characters moral value”. To begin, this essay will look at the concept of situational narrative and its links to the melodramatic mode. It will show how moments of spectacle are linked through such situations and used to create pathos in the viewer towards the victim-hero. The melodramatic mode is always dealing with dual recognition and presenting an image of how things are and how they should be. By comparing the two movies listed above this essay will endeavour to show how such meaning might be read in an action film. Furthermore exploring the polar moral opposites at play in most action films this essay will illustrate how a principle which is at the heart of the melodramatic mode, is played out as a logical convention in the action film. It will attempt to show how such conventions are often presented not by words but by elements of the mis-en-scene. Finally this essay will discuss hierarchies of knowledge in association with melodrama and how they function to instil pathos in the audience towards the victim-hero.

Steve Neale (p.6), in the essay ‘Melodrama and Tears’ argues that melodrama is “Marked by chance happenings, coincidences, missed meetings, sudden conversions, last minute-rescues, and revelations”. Similarly Scott Higgins (2008) explains that the situational dramaturgy that can be found in the action film is rooted heavily in the ’blood and thunder’ melodrama. This view is further championed by other academics such as Lynda Williams (1998) and Peter Brooks (1976) in their respective writings on melodrama. It can therefore be understood that the melodramatic mode is constructed not through classical goal orientated narrative but instead through situational events. In Nowhere to Run Van Damme’s character, Sam, is a convict who is broken out of prison by his friend Billy while being transported on a bus. Following the escape Sam drives to a secluded forest where he hides form the authorities. While there he stumbles upon a house, which is occupied by a family of three (a single mother, son and daughter). Nowhere to Run is the story of an escaped convict who ultimately redeems his virtue by saving a family who is being tormented and harassed by a development company, seeking the land for its own development plans.  At this point it is apparent that the story’s development is based upon the chance placement of Sam’s hiding spot. In contrast Bloodsport is the story of Frank Dux (Van Damme) who travels to Hong Kong to compete is a martial arts tournament, the ‘Kumite’. It could be argued that the beginning sets up a chance coincidence through Frank’s flashback, which depicts him as a teenager sneaking into someone’s house with the intent to rob them. Dux’s is caught by the homeowner, Tanaka, and subsequently agrees to help train Tanaka’s son, Shingo, in exchange for not calling the cops. When Shingo dies prematurely Frank vows to fight in the kumite to honour Tanaka. What differs in this film however is that the situation occurs as a back-story and the film follows Frank in the present on a goal-orientated quest to fulfil a promise to Tanaka. Situation alone however does not constitute a melodrama, as Higgins (2008) explains, melodrama has an aesthetic that is dominated by spectacle.

Tom Gunning (1994, p.51) states that the term sensation, “describes the centre-piece of a new form of theatrical melodrama… whose spectacular appearance and technical virtuosity was devised precisely to thrill the audience.” This implies that spectacle was initially created purely for entertainment purposes. However, Williams (1998) argues that it is not simply spectacle that is important, but how the spectacle affects the viewer. For Williams it is the affect of the spectacle which defines the melodramatic mode. An example of how spectacle is used for effect instead of affect arises in Bloodsport. Bloodsport presents the spectacle of the human body. The flashback sequence at the beginning of the film offers a rhythmic montage of Frank Dux learning martial arts under the tutelage of Tanaka. The sequence reaches its climax when Dux is strung up between two trees by his arms and legs and is positioned in a sidewards splits, hovering in the air. Dux fights through the pain to lift himself and finally break one of the trees. The spectacle does affect the audience in that it arouses awe of the ability of Van Damme to accomplish such a feat, however it does not affect the audience in regards to the characters moral virtues. By contract, Nowhere to Run present a number of spectacles, all used to portray Sam’s misrecognised virtue. In a scene where the development company has been suggested to have set a townsman’s barn on fire, Sam is woken by Mookie to come to the rescue. Up until this point the audience has seen Sam escape from jail and spy on the mother while undressing in the bathroom, therefore portraying his morality as questionable. Sam selflessly runs to the rescue of the townsman by barging his way through the flaming door to rescue the farmer and his horses from the collapsing building. This scene is used as a building block for the re-recognition of Sam’s virtue. The film ends with Sam saving the family, and subsequently the town and handing himself over to the authorities to face his past sins, thus completing his recognition of virtue and establishing him as the hero. It is also important to note that Nowhere to Run presents a story of ordinary people trying to deal with the challenges of life, which is compliant with Gledhill’s notion (1986, p.45) that “Melodrama is not about revolutionary change but about struggle with the status quo”.

As Gledhill (1986) accurately described, melodrama attempts to dramatise the ordinary. Brooks (1976, p.13) traces the origins of such drama back to Denis Diderot. He explains that Diderot proposed, “a serious attention to the drama of the ordinary.” This ‘drama’ is achieved through two conventions, the first is overstated mis-en-scene (sign) which will be discussed later in this essay, and secondly the articulation of social issues through a dual recognition. Williams argues that melodrama always presents two realities, the way we wish to perceive the world and the reality of which it actually exists (1998). Williams (1998, p.48) borrows Gledhill’s description expressing, “It both insist on the realities of life in bourgeois democracy… and in an implicit recognition of the limitations of the conventions of representation… proceeds to insist on, force into an aesthetic presence, desire for identity”. In the example of Nowhere to Run, the audience is presented with a small town, which represents the innocence of how the world should be. The development company who represent the world, as it is, a capitalistic society of expansion, challenges this innocence. On the surface Nowhere to Run deals with the struggles of a family to keep their land, however this can be seen as a metaphor for the opposing social views of society. Therefore the dual recognition here works both to deal with the return of innocence to this once quiet and beautiful valley town, but also with the innocence of society as a whole.  This notion would appear to conform with Gledhill’s reading of melodrama as seen through her quotation of Thomas Elsaesser (2000, p.232) melodrama… provide a means of aesthetically organising the experiences of the city life under capitalism which… provides stark juxtaposition between wealth and poverty… social rise and fall.” Bloodsport in contrast, does not deal with ordinary life, nor does it attempt to present a dual recognition of the world. The goal of Frank Dux to fight in the ‘Kumite’ cannot be seen as a status quo situation, which deals with ordinary life, nor can a dual recognition be forced upon its straightforward goals of spectacle entertainment. It does however deal with the polarisation of good verses evil, which as stated in the opening is a vital part of melodrama.

Brooks (1976, p.5) states, “Scenes of dramatic choice between heightened moral alternatives, where every gesture, however frivolous or insignificant it may seem, is charged with the conflict between light and darkness.” In Bloodsport this is presented through Frank Dux’s honest and noble desire to win the ‘Kumite’ in contrast to Chong Li who will do anything to anyone to be the centre of the crowd’s attention, and overall winner. Nowhere to Run offers an interesting twist on this moral polarity with Sam, the convicted criminal, representing good, while Franklin Hale (the head developer), who has the assistance of the local sheriff, is portrayed as evil. However polar opposites can be used in films outside the melodramatic mode and so for it to play an active roll in the conventions of the melodramatic mode, there must be a defining factor. For Gunning (1994) this factor arises from the melodramas ability to articulate meaning not simply through dialogue, but also through different registers of sign. Melodrama differs from other modes of expression in that it presents it’s meaning through a register of sign.  Brooks (1976, p.11) argues, “that the total expressivity assigned to gesture is related to the ineffability of what is to be expressed.” In Nowhere to Run when Franklin Hale is addressing the populace of the town at a meeting, trying to convince them of his innocent intensions, he is situated on a stage which is lit using floor lights as if it were a rock concert. By doing so Franklins appearance is demonic and untrustworthy. The camera is also positioned at an upward angel to skew the spectator’s view of him. The situation appears somewhat unrealistic as the whole hall is lit and in a realist telling Franklins face would appear more evenly lit and not so overtly shaded in such a manner. However Brooks (1976, p.9) declares, “If reality does not permit of such self-representations… so much the worse for reality.” Therefore it can be argued that the lighting of this scene is less for a realist telling and more likely being used to articulate the characters underlying intensions and their questionability.

Similarly, the Mis-en-scene can be used to provoke pathos for the victim-hero. Williams (1998), along with Brooks (1976) and Gledhill (2000), argue that an important aspect of the melodramatic mode is the misrecognition of the victim-heroes virtue and its re-recognition. Neale (1986) discusses in his article “Melodrama and Tears” how hierarchies of knowledge place the audience at an advantage of knowing more then the characters and hence is able to evoke pathos for the characters. Nowhere to Run exhibits such hierarchies though out the film as Clydie begins to fall in love with Sam. The audience is privy to the knowledge that Sam is a convict but Clydie is not. When the pinnacle moment arrives and she discovers his true identity the audience has already recognised Sam’s virtue and is thus affected by her misrecognition of him. Misrecognition is interestingly portrayed in the film because it is the unveiling of his true identity that leads to Clydie’s misrecognition of his virtue, which to this point she had recognised. Nowhere to Run thus conforms to the melodramatic mode in that its victim-hero, Sam, regains his virtue both from the audience and the characters at the end of the movie by saving the town from the developers. By contrast, while Bloodsport does engage is some level of hierarchical knowledge (as all films do), it does not do so in an effort to represent a victim-hero which must regain his virtue. Hierarchies are instead used to built elements of suspense such as when Janice informs the police of Franks whereabouts in an attempt to stop him from fighting in the ‘Kumite’ finals. The audience is privileged to this information while Frank is not, which builds the anticipation of a finally confrontation between the federal agents and Frank.

In conclusion this essay has effectively argued that actions films such as Nowhere to Run can be, and should be considered as part of the melodramatic mode. By comparing Bloodsport with Nowhere to Run, and discussing the narrative structures and alternate concepts of spectacle this essay has illustrated how melodrama and classic narrative films fundamentally differ. Furthermore through the analysis of duel recognition, polar moralities, and the misrecognition and re-recognition of the victim-heroes virtue, this essay has endeavoured to demonstrate how the melodramatic mode may function in the action film.


Bloodsport, 1988, Film, Directed by N. Arnold, Hong Kong, Cannon International

C. Gledhill, 1986, ‘Christine Glenhill on “Stella Dallas” and Feminist Film Theory’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 25, no. 4, summer, pp. 44 – 48

C. Gledhill, 2000,  ‘Rethinking Genre’, in (eds). C. Gledhill and L. Williams, ‘Reinventing film studies’, Arnold, London and New York, pp. 221 -243

L. Williams, ‘Melodrama Revised’, in Nick Browne ed, Refiguring American Film Genre: History and Theory, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 42 – 88

Nowhere to Run, 1993, Film, Directed by R. Harmon, USA, Columbia Pictures Corporation

P. Brooks, 1976, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac Henry James Melodrama and the Mode of Excess, Yale University Press, London

S. Higgins, 2008, ‘Melodramatic Narrative and the Contemporary Action Film’, Cinema Journal, summer, Vol. 47, no. 2, winter, pp. 165 – 170

S. Neale, 1986, ‘Melodrama and Tears’, Screen, vol. 27, no.6, November/December, pp. 6 – 23.

T. Gunning, 1994,’The Horror of Opacity: The Melodrama of Sensation in the Plays of Andre De Lorde’, in (eds), J. Bratton & J. Cook & C. Gledhill, Melodrama: Stage Picture Screen, BFI publishing, London